The Sunday Section: Snippets of ... Medieval Weapons - Longbow

The longbow, first used by the Welsh, and which first appeared around the beginning of the 12th century, was the weapon that raised the status of the common soldier.  During the reign of Henry III, the Assize of Arms 1252 proclaimed that all ‘ citizens, burgesses, free tenants, villeins and others from 15 to 60 years of age’ should be armed.  About 100 years later, during the reign of Edward III, the Archery Law of 1363 commanded the obligatory practice of archery on Sundays and holidays.  This law ‘ forbade, on pain of death, all sport that took up time better spent on war training especially archery practise’.  Parents had to provide their sons, from the age of 7 to 17, with a bow and 2 arrows; after 17, the young man had to equip himself with a bow and 4 arrows.  Each longbow was made to measure, to ‘fit’ the individual archer.

As a lightly armed yet highly mobile force, archers proved immensely effective; their arrow storms almost always succeeded in halting the advance of the enemy.  The victories over the French at Crécy, Agincourt and Poitiers were, in large part, won by the expertise of English archers and the longbow.  Learning to master the longbow was a time-consuming affair, so the English made sure time was properly invested in it by making archery practice compulsory.  The French failed to do this because they regarded the well-armed, mounted knight to be worth 10 ordinary soldiers – one of the reasons they reacted so badly to being defeated by the common soldier, little more than a peasant.

Because of the way the English used the bow, it took at least a couple of years to properly master the technique.  It’s usually assumed that the bow is held steady, while the string is drawn back.  But the Englishman was taught "to bend the bow not by pulling the string, but pressing his whole body forward into stance and draw.  Not easy, though once learned, the method took advantage of the whole strength of a man’s back and shoulders rather than putting all the strain on the shooting arm.  The result was greater range and more accuracy, more endurance over a day’s shooting.” ~ Parke Godwin

Although longbows are also made of ash, hazel and elm, the wood of choice is yew because it is a natural combination of 2 types of wood, the cream-coloured sapwood, and the dark honey-coloured heartwood.  Because it resists tension, the sapwood is placed to the back of the bow; while the heartwood is placed at the front as it resists compression.  This gives the bow remarkable power – arrows can leave a longbow at over 140mph, and the maximum effective range is about 590 feet.

The arrows that were used were mainly the bodkin, a bolt-shaped arrowhead ideal for puncturing metal plate armour, and one with a barbed head, which tended to be used against soft targets; arrows with wide barbs caused severe wounds and were difficult to remove as they would still be spinning when they hit the target.

Tests have shown that, once the arrow leaves the bow, it starts to lose velocity, so accuracy and damage are greater over shorter distances.  When fired at a steel breastplate, a bodkin-tipped arrow only succeeded in denting the armour at 260 feet; at just under 100 feet, it managed to puncture the armour; and at 65 feet, it penetrated the plate and underlying coat to hit the flesh.

The longbow has proved to be twice as fast as the crossbow – in 30 seconds, a skilled archer can fire 9 arrows, compared to only 4 bolts from a crossbow.

The Battle of Crécy, 26 August 1346, was the first battle in which archers fought against knights, and won. 

 'The Battle of Crécy' ~ Jean Froissart

'The Battle of Crécy' ~ Jean Froissart

The Hundred Years War, which began in 1340, between England and France, was basically Edward III making his bid for the French throne.  The lightning strike raids he launched into France to enhance his claim were intended to humiliate Philip VI, the French king, and cause the French people to question their monarch’s inability to protect them.

By 1346, Edward was in Normandy with a force of about 16,000 men, which included about 7,000 Welsh and English archers.  After sacking Caen, Edward skirted Paris, heading for Calais.  Having had time to gather his forces, Philip VI pursued Edward with between 20,000 to 25,000 knights and soldiers, including Genoese mercenary crossbowmen.

When they got to the river Somme, the British found it impassable as French forward forces had destroyed the bridges.  Edward’s men finally found a place to cross at low tide.  Near the village of Crécy, they settled into position on a ridge, with Edward taking his post in a windmill at the highest point.  His 16-year-old son, Edward, Prince of Wales, later known as the Black Prince, commanded the right division of the English army.

Edward III crossing the Somme - Benjamin West

When Philip arrived with his army, they found themselves faced with the Crécy bank, a natural landscape feature.  He was left with no choice but to funnel his men through a narrow space.  Even though he would have preferred delaying the attack to give his men time to rest, Philip was forced to attack that same day as his independent-minded nobles, the knights, were impatient to prove themselves the saviours of France.

With the Genoese crossbowmen forming the van, the French army advanced.  A sudden thunderstorm struck – while the English archers were able to remove their bowstrings and keep them dry, the crossbowmen, with their cumbersome weapons, had no such ability.

As soon as the English were within crossbow range, the Genoese fired their bolts, but the rain had loosened the strings of their weapons; the shots fell short.  The French chronicler, Jean Froissart, recorded the response: ‘The English archers each stepped forth one pace, drew the bowstring to his ear, and let their arrows fly; so wholly and so thick that it seemed as snow.

Suffering heavy casualties, the Genoese were forced to retreat … straight into the path of the oncoming French knights who rode them down.  Confusion ensued.

Around this time, a messenger arrived at King Edward’s post, requesting support for the Prince of Wales.  From his vantage point, the king could see that the French were making little headway up the hill.  He is reputed to have asked if his son was dead or wounded.  On being assured that the prince was unharmed, he said, ‘I am confident he will repel the enemy without my help … Let the boy win his spurs.

Believing that heavily armoured knights would easily defeat foot soldiers, the French began to charge in a full-frontal assault.  But in the 40 seconds it took them to charge on horseback up the high ground, the 7,000 English archers fired an arrow-storm of up to 70,000 arrows.

French charge

High-arching barbed arrows fell in a plunging trajectory, ripping through men and horses; bodkin bolt arrows punctured armour.  Dead men and horses, wounded ones struggling in front of the English line only impeded successive charges.

As night fell, the battle continued.  At around midnight, Philip VI abandoned the battlefield, and rode to the castle of La Boyes.  Soon afterwards, the battle ended, with the surviving French knights and soldiers fleeing.  The English army remained in its position until morning. 

A little aside – during the battle, King John of Bohemia, riding against the Prince of Wales, was killed along with his knights.  Despite being blind, he still insisted on fighting; none could then say that a Bohemian, even a blind one, had ever run from a fight.  With a knight on either side of him, the bridles of their horses strapped to their king’s horse, King John rode into battle.  He and his knights were struck down, most possibly by English archers.  Courageous or foolhardy … or both?  After the battle, the Prince of Wales, adopted the emblem and the motto of the King of Bohemia – three white feathers, and ‘Ich Dien’ (I Serve) – still the emblem of the Prince of Wales to this day.

Some famous bows, but not necessarily longbows:

Apollo’s bow, could bestow health, or cause famine, or death in sleep

Brahmastra, a bow created by Brahma, the Hindu god of Creation.  As it never missed its mark, it had to be used with specific intent against the enemy, as the target would face complete annihilation.

Fail-not, also known as the Unfailing Bow, was the bow of Tristan; it was said to never miss its mark.

Heracles’ bow, which also belonged to Philoctetes; its arrows had the poison of the Lernaean Hydra.

Kodandam, the bow Rama.